Post originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites
The Jack London District might finally get something it’s been lacking since its booming development: a real grocery store.
After decades of growth and restructuring, a number of notable restaurants like Haven, Forge, and smaller artisans like Miette opened their doors on Jack London Square’s waterfront and within the surrounding residential areas. Even so, the district remains a food desert meaning that access to fresh produce is limited. Aside from a farmers’ market, which happens only once a week, the closest grocery store to the Jack London District is in Chinatown.
A startup team decided that it was time to shake things up. Tommaso Boggia and La Wanda Knox are co-founders of Portside Community Market, a soon-to-be cooperative whose mission will be to provide residents in the Jack London District with fresh, local and organic produce. The team plans to build a 5000-square-foot community market.
The hip neighborhood has attracted investors, restaurants and festivals but Boggia says this type of business development doesn’t necessarily reflect the residents’ wishes.
“I have been working with a neighborhood association for over a year, researching how Jack London residents, visitors, employees and business owners would like to see the neighborhood improve,” Boggia explains. “Over and over again, the number one concern is having more residential amenities and more specifically, a grocery store.”
Boggia is from Italy. He moved to the U.S. nine years ago and was shocked by the lack of access to fresh food.
“I was not able to walk to a place to get fresh and healthy food,” he says. “And I lived in Santa Cruz!”
Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind Portside Community Market’s business strategy.
“I come from Bayview in San Francisco,” she says. “It’s what you would call another food desert.”
Knox believes the market is an opportunity to build wealth and support the local economy. It is also an opportunity for her to grow professionally. Her stint as a corporate consultant left her feeling frustrated and she hopes that a cooperative business will offer a better working environment.
“I have worked in the corporate world and it is not friendly to African American women,” she says. “I always plateaued.”
Brahm Ahmadi from People’s Grocery inspired her. Ahmadi and his team are undertaking a similar venture in West Oakland called the People’s Community Market. Ahmadi is currently fundraising for his West Oakland project. After meeting with Ahmadi, she gained a better understanding of the challenges ahead, like the lack of “real” support from the City of Oakland.
“The city of Oakland says it supports the concept but at the same time officials haven’t put anything behind it,” she says.
But let’s be honest, Jack London Square brings massive revenue to the city of Oakland and residents aren’t living in poverty. Jack London’s 2000 residents do not have the same “needs” as West Oakland’s 25,000 residents, half of whom do not own a car, which makes walking 1.5 miles to the nearest grocery store a real challenge. So, I ask, why Jack London?
“I was not going go to a community of need and impose something on a community that is not my own,” Boggia says while Knox nods in approval. “This is the community that I know, that I live in and that’s why I wanted to start it here. From the beginning our idea was to create a replicable model whether through franchise or just though creating a way to support a sister cooperative in a community that is more in need but it will be driven from the people of that community,” he says.
Jack London: A Food Desert and Vacant Buildings
The district of Jack London is home to more than 2000 residents and workers but it is also a harbor of vacant buildings. Since the 1970s, numerous developers attempted to redesign Jack London Square only to leave behind empty spaces. In the 1970s, European-style pathways and storefronts popped up but the project never succeeded in exciting the masses. Barnes and Noble, which open in the 1980s, closed in 2010 and the building has been vacant ever since. That same year, Jack London Square Ventures LLC, a partnership between Ellis LLC and Divco West, envisioned a ferry-building-style market and built a six-story glass building composed of office and retail space. 90 percent of the office space is now leased to restaurants like Haven or Bocanova but the 72,000 square feet of retail space is still market-less.
“The next step is figuring out our fundraising logistics and as soon as we are incorporated, we can start finalizing the location,” Boggia says.
“We are looking at visibility, parking, square footage and proximity to residential areas,” Knox adds.
But that’s easier said than done. Boggia says that some of the major challenges the team faces have been plaguing the district for years: property owners’ lack of strategy or unrealistic goals. He says that some of them, like Jack London Partners, are waiting for big box grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to lease or buy their properties.
“That’s never going to happen,” he says. “There isn’t the residential density for it and even then they keep telling us that they don’t want something smaller.”
The team has recently launched a survey asking what residents would like their grocery store to look like. Boggia is convinced that the Portside Community Market will thrive even with competitors like Whole Foods because the project is truly community-oriented.
“We’ll reflect the neighborhood’s character, we are adaptable and we are worker-owned,” he says smiling.